A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
OCTOBER 17:

  • Happy birthday Alan Garner (The Owl Service).
  • It’s the birth date of Robert Jordan (1948–2007), The Hunt Begins.
  • Scientist Albert Einstein flees Nazi Germany and moves to the United States in 1933. Read Albert Einstein by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Boris Kulikov.
  • Created by The United Nations, this is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Read The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage, illustrated by Garth Williams.
  • It’s Wear Something Gaudy Day.
  • You get a do-over on Mulligan Day. Give someone, or yourself, a second chance! And read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton.

On October 17, 1931, Al Capone, known as Scarface and the most notorious outlaw in the United States, was finally convicted for tax evasion, a rather dull offense amid his many crimes. Eventually, when a new, completely secure federal penitentiary was completed, Capone, known as prisoner AZ 85, went to live on Alcatraz Island, off the coast of San Francisco, for four and a half years.

Now, Al Capone and Alcatraz don’t seem obvious subjects for one of the best novels for children of the past ten years—but, in fact, they form the core of Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone Does My Shirts. Alcatraz not only housed some of the most vicious criminals of the time, but it also served as the home for fifty to sixty families who provided services in the prison. They lived on the island around the clock.

The hero of Al Capone Does My Shirts, Moose Flanagan, a twelve-year-old baseball nut, finds himself taken from the school and friends he loves because his father accepts a job as an Alcatraz prison guard. Not only does Moose have to get used to a new school but he must also adjust to the realities of this bizarre and tight-knit community. On Alcatraz the daughter of the prison warden, Piper, cows all of the children with her recklessness and deceit. Since Al Capone works in the laundry, Piper sets up a clothes-cleaning service for children at their off-island school—she tells them they can brag forever that Al Capone did their laundry. Meanwhile, Moose has problems all his own: His older sister, Natalie, suffers from a form of autism. Living with a disease undiagnosed at the time of the story, Natalie has driven their mother to the brink of insanity. Moose often is the only member of the family able to care for her.

The historical novel, taking place over six months from January through June of 1935, develops a cast of characters that children want to hang out with and an unusual setting that often provides the tension for the plot. Although the relationships of the children takes up most of the narrative, readers also learn a great deal about Al Capone—his favorite colors, that he likes silk underwear, and that he opened the first soup kitchen in Chicago. And, in the end, the infamous Mr. Capone actually helps Moose get Natalie into a school that may help her.

A Newbery Honor Book published in 2004, Al Capone Does My Shirts exemplifies the best qualities of historical fiction for children: a sense of story, a sense of place, and a sense of history. It stands at the top of my list of recent books with a great chance to become literary classics—one of those books you can savor again and again.

Here’s a passage from Al Capone Does My Shirts:

Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water. Alcatraz sits smack in the middle of the bay—so close to the city of San Francisco, I can hear them call the score on a baseball game on Marina Green. Okay, not that close. But still.

I’m not the only kid who lives here. There’s my sister, Natalie, except she doesn’t count. And there are twenty-three other kids who live on the island because their dads work as guards or cooks or doctors or electricians for the prison like my dad does. Plus there are a ton of murderers, rapists, hit men, con men, stickup men, embezzlers, connivers, burglars, kidnappers and maybe even an innocent man or two, though I doubt it.

Originally posted October 17, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: History
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Al Capone Does My Shirts
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COMMENTS

  1. Wow, what a cool topic for a book!

    I felt as a boy again reading your review Anita – and the excerpt!

    This one, I must check out as well.

    Thanks for the fabulous tip as usual!

    Read Aloud Dad

  2. Susan Gilbert says:

    Love this book. There’s also a great nonfiction book for kids on this subject:
    The Children of Alcatraz: Growing Up on the Rock by Claire Rudolf Murphy

  3. Anita says:

    Susan: Thanks for mentioning The Children of Alcatraz. The two books work well together as a fiction/nonfiction pairing.
    One of my twitter contacts suggested pairing Al Capone with Green Glass Sea, also a fascinating combination.

    Read Aloud Dad: I think you are going to like this main character — and the story is fabulous.

  4. Ashley says:

    What a fascinating and unique subject for a children’s story. I’ll have to check it out!

  5. Denise says:

    I’m reading this to a group of third graders right now. When we’re done, I will have to get The Children of Alcatraz to share with them. Thanks for the idea Susan!

  6. Katy W. says:

    I hope to check out this book and the one Susan Gilbert recommended once I am safely in my Winter Break!

  7. Love this book Anita. Thanks for bringing it to the forefront. The audio version is spectacular as well.

  8. Anita says:

    Jennifer: Thanks for mentioning the audio book as well.

  9. Gennifer says:

    Anita! Thanks so much for honoring my book in this way. Book-a-day certainly made my day today!

  10. Anita says:

    I cannot thank you enough for the book. As you can see from people’s comments (here and on Twitter) this book and its sequel are loved by so many readers. I’m only one of them.

  11. Ruby says:

    I cannot thank you enough for the book. As you can see from people’s comments (here and on Twitter) this book and its sequel are loved by so many readers. I’m only one of them

  12. Cathy Ogren says:

    This is a great book. Everyone should read it.

  13. Kim Leimer says:

    I read this book aloud a few years ago to my fourth graders. The theme of autism, in particular, generated very intense conversation among the students. Highly recommend!

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